Since 1992, Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) has protected the public’s ability to hold government officials accountable. The genius behind GRAMA was that it presumed all records, regardless of the medium on which they were recorded, belonged in the public domain. It was up to the government to prove that records needed to be kept out of view. But there are proposals being discussed on Capitol Hill that would undermine GRAMA’s mission. The GRAMA Task Force is considering legislation that would make it easier for government agencies and officials to deprive the public of information that is now in the public domain. One proposal, crafted in response to the question of whether e-mail is covered under GRAMA, would define government records as those documents prepared in connection with the public business. It would restrict access to documents prepared by officials and their staff as part of the deliberative process. In other words, the public would only be entitled to see the final result of a government action and not know how their elected officials made the decision. Without being able to see those records, it would be hard to know if officials and representatives are acting in the public’s interest or if they are helping well-heeled special interests. The task force is also debating whether to let people ask for records in different forms. For example, if someone asks for a list of all sexual assaults committed in the state, a government official could refuse the request because the information is already contained in a more comprehensive report on crime. In this day and age of digital information, extracting information isn’t an undue burden. Another proposal would allow government to charge different fees for public documents based on who is requesting them or what they intend to use them for. The stated goal is to keep database companies from using public records for profit, but it undermines a principle in GRAMA that the records belong to the public, and that people shouldn’t have to explain why they want a record. We already pay for the records, so why should people have to pay again? There are also plans to declare things such as names and addresses private records. This will make it hard to look up information in the public record, such as real estate holdings. The idea is to protect people from identity theft, but identity thieves are not going to use public records, where there’s a trail leading right back to who asked for the information. It’s far easier to go sifting through garbage cans than to ask for government records. Lawmakers are also considering a proposal to allow government records keepers to deny records requests if it is determined that the request is a form of harassment or unreasonably increases the workload of government. That is a standard that would allow record keepers to deny requests for myriad political and personal reasons. The task force is also looking at a proposal to force all open records appeal to go to the state Records Commission. Currently, you may either go to the commission or to court to appeal a denial. By forcing everything through the records commission first, it adds additional delay to receiving a record and either discourage people from seeking the record or making the information next to worthless because it was received too late to be of any use in some cases. The founding fathers realized that a democratic republic wouldn’t succeed without a free flow of information. If the people couldn’t find out what their government was doing, they wouldn’t be able to carry out their duties and call it into account. GRAMA has helped Utahns fulfill that duty while balancing the basic need for privacy. There is also little, if any, evidence that GRAMA is being abused. If there are abuses, the abuser, not the record, should be punished. The task force conducts its final meeting Nov. 8 in the House Office Building. We urge you to contact task force members and demand that they preserve the public’s right to know.
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